Saints & Seekers
It’s difficult to overstate how crucial Western monasticism was to preserving European civilization. As the last vestiges of the Roman Empire withered away in the fifth century, monastic communities emerged as islands of enlightenment among a dark sea of barbarism and anarchy that held sway over Europe for centuries. Here is how one scholar puts it:
[T]here was one occupation of the monks which, perhaps more than any other, helped in the preservation of Western Civilization: that of copying ancient manuscripts. … It begins in the sixth century when a retired Roman senator by the name of Cassiodorus established a monastery at Vivarium in southern Italy and endowed it with a fine library wherein the copying of manuscripts took center stage. Thereafter most monasteries were endowed with so called scriptoria as part of their libraries: rooms where ancient literature was transcribed by monks as part of their manual labor.
But the role of the monks in saving civilization was even broader than this, according to the scholar:
Besides praying and working out their salvation and preaching the gospel, what else did monks pursue in those monasteries? The practical arts, agriculture being a significant one. They literally saved agriculture in Europe. They taught the folks how to cultivate the land, especially in Germany where they converted the wilderness into a cultivated country. Manual labor was intrinsic part of their rule which proclaimed “ora et labora” (pray and work). In England they owned one fifth of all its cultivable land.…
Was he the great doubter or just a trust-but-verify believer? In two recent posts, here and here, I have presented both views of St. Thomas: one is from the traditional Western perspective and the other view is also a traditional view, namely the view held by the St. Thomas Christians from India. So who is right? Or are these two views necessarily incompatible with each other?
I believe there is a way of reconciling these two views and it can be done through a third view of St. Thomas—as the saint who was the first to have a radical personal encounter with Christ, literally putting his hands in His wounds. It’s not for nothing that most introductions to the Five Wounds devotion that you’ll find (examples here and here) will quote the passage from the Gospel of John where the story is told.
I think putting the emphasis on this final encounter with Christ, brings the key elements and themes of the story into focus. The element of doubt is an undeniable one, based not only on the immediate text but the broader context of the gospel accounts of the Resurrection. What’s distinctive about St. Thomas is not that he doubted, but where that doubt led. St. Thomas did not shrink back from Jesus. He did not wallow in his doubt. Instead, his doubt became occasion for drawing closer to Christ and having that mystical personal encounter, at Jesus’ invitation.…
It’s almost impossible to speak of St. Thomas in the Western Christian tradition without attaching to him the somewhat ignominious epithet of “Doubting,” one which earns him both our sympathies but also costs him perhaps some of the respect that is given to other apostles. Perhaps some of us wonder how, after hearing of the resurrection and then seeing Christ in person, St. Thomas could still have doubts.
But the St. Thomas Christians of India—an apostolic church that traces its founding to the vigorous mission activity of the so-called doubting apostle—say he’s been misunderstood. Here is how he is seen in that tradition, according to a recent National Geographic article that quotes the director of a manuscript library in Kerala, India:
In India, Thomas is revered as a bold missionary. In the West, he represents the believer who wrestles with uncertainty. “The classic portrayal of Thomas,” [Columba] Stewart said, “is the doubting Thomas. That’s a little inaccurate, because it’s not so much that he doubted the resurrection but that he needed a personal encounter with Jesus to make the resurrection real. So you might think of him as the pragmatic Thomas or the forensic Thomas. The guy who’s so experiential that he said, ‘I need to put my finger in the wounds in his hands and in his side.’ And this experience gave him the fuel he needed to do amazing things.”
Thomas’s moment of incredulity has proved a two-edged sword in the history of Christian thought.…
The early years of the Church are crowded with giants—St. Ambrose, St. John Chrysostom, St. Augustine, Tertullian, St. Jerome, St. Basil, St. Gregory of Nyssa and St. Gregory of Nazianzus—the list just keeps going on and on.
But who was the ‘first great theologian’?
It’s a name that’s probably not unfamiliar to contemporary Catholics who may recall that St. Irenaeus took on the Gnostics and other heretics in his aptly titled work, Against Heresies. In fighting against one of the earliest heresies, he demonstrated the existence of an orthodoxy and a church hierarchy willing to enforce it. In terms of sheer chronology, he arrives on the scene as the first great theologian of the Church—a fact that lends some additional weight to his statements on the Eucharist, Mary and salvation, Rome and Church authority. Given his place in the timeline of early Church history—Irenaeus derived much of his theology from Polycarp, a student of the Apostle John, and Irenaeus, in turn, influenced St. Ambrose, who converted St. Augustine—it seems hard to overstate his theological importance.
It’s clear to anyone who’s reading Irenaeus honestly that already in the second century AD, he had a fully developed understanding of the Real Presence, even though he did not use that term; that the basic outline of Catholic Mariology was already present in his writings; and that the primacy of Rome was already fixed in the early Christian consciousness.…
We know much more about the others—St. Peter as the leader of the nascent Christian community, St. Paul as the great New Testament writer, St. John as the author of the magnificently imaginative Book of Revelation, and a number of others who became the founders of the churches around the eastern rim of the Mediterranean.
But St. Thomas himself went on to lead an illustrious and faith-filled life as an apostle in his own right. In a fitting turnaround from his doubts over the Resurrection of Christ, he is, according to tradition, the first to have witnessed the Assumption of Mary. (Click here and here for sources.) He’s also connected by tradition to the conversion of Edessa, in modern-day Turkey, which is regarded as the first Christian city in the ancient world. Just how much of a role he played is unclear—but public veneration of the apostle continued for centuries, so one way or another, he left his mark on that ancient city.
St. Thomas’ name also is, regrettably, attached to the gnostic text, the Gospel of St. Thomas, and the heretical Acts of Thomas.
On the upside, his lasting achievement is most likely the founding of a Christian church, known as the St. Thomas Christians. Here is how his missions are described in one ancient text:
It was to a land of dark people he was sent, to clothe them by Baptism in white robes.…
Archbishop Fulton Sheen, one of the most beloved and recognizable radio and TV Catholic evangelists of the twentieth century and the author of some 80 books, edged closer to sainthood today, with the declaration that he is ‘venerable,’ the Washington Post and other news outlets are reporting.
According to the Washington Post report, Pope Benedict XVI signed a decree recognizing Sheen for living a life of ‘heroic virtue.’ Sheen is best known for his hard stances against the Nazis, communism, and liberal psychology, according to the report. But he also was simply a great communicator when it came to expounding upon the fundamentals of Catholic teaching on everything from the temptation of sin to the virtues of Mary.
For me, one of aspect of his career that is most striking is his ability to use modern technology—in his time, that was radio and television—without watering down his message to suit the new medium, something that seems to be a common vocational hazard with so many other so-called televangelists. He seems so out of place on television, striding onto the screen in the full regalia of an archbishop, armed with chalk or a Bible—in a way, I think that’s what made him so effective. (Click here to view a classic vignette from one of his television programs, an episode on the nature of temptation.) Sheen was also quite the accomplished writer, just check out this list of the books he wrote during his lifetime.…
The Church fathers wrote with a clarity and richness that seems wholly unique to their age. I recently came across this quote from St. Basil about reading Scripture—specifically the gospels—which is a perfect example:
Every deed and every word of our Savior Jesus Christ is a canon of piety and virtue. When thou hearest word or deed of His, do not hear it as by the way, or after a simple and carnal manner, but enter into the depths of His contemplation, become a communicant in truths mystically delivered to thee.
There is so much theology packed into those two sentences that would later be unfolded and expounded upon in later centuries, but I have never seen it put so brilliantly and succinctly. St. Basil’s exhortation to ‘enter into the depths of His contemplation’ seems to anticipate the later development of contemplative prayer in the Church, most recently the practice of centering prayer. He is calling upon us to not just read Scripture, but to read it in a contemplative spirit, in which our whole being is engaged in the act of reading—not just our mind. In other words, he is telling us to read it with the same Spirit with which it was written, to read it with the eyes of sight as well as faith—which transcends reason to encompass the very depths of our being.
St. Basil’s words recall what Jesus said to his disciples in John 6, after the disciples remark that his words on the Eucharist are a ‘hard saying’: “It is the spirit that quickeneth; the flesh profiteth nothing: the words that I speak unto you, they are spirit, and they are life.” Indeed, like our encounter with Christ in the Eucharist, we also encounter Him through Scripture.…
Father Patric F. D’Arcy seems to personify the future of the Church in the United States. This summer, he became the only new priest to be ordained in the Archdiocese of New York. He’s taking over at a Spanish-speaking parish in the Bronx—after spending his summers as a teacher in Latin America. Among his first acts as a new priest: celebrating Mass the day after his ordination in Latin and having a top official in Opus Dei deliver the homily. Fr. D’Arcy points to where the Church in the U.S. is headed—smaller, more conservative, and increasingly Hispanic.
And to whom does he turn for inspiration in such times? The saints of the Cristero War in Mexico, in particular this one, according to this recent New York Times article:
Father D’Arcy has spent summers teaching in Latin America, and in the days before his ordination, he said he found himself turning for inspiration to the Catholics killed in a 1920s Mexican rebellion sparked when the government tried to remove the church from public life. In particular, he was meditating on the fate of a 14-year-old rebel, José Sánchez del Río, who was killed after refusing to renounce Christ, and was beatified by Pope Benedict XVI in 2005.
In our current culture, “there is an air of anti-Catholicism, anti-Christianity, anti-religion, maybe,” Father D’Arcy said. What happened in Mexico in the 1920s was an extreme, he added, “but it started somewhere.”
Credit goes to the New York Times for writing a really fair and objective story.…
St. Thomas More, whose feast day was last Friday, lived a life full of tough choices, culminating in his decision to stand up to King Henry VIII when he severed the church of English from the Catholic Church, over the issue of divorce. Most people who have heard of him at least know two things More—that he was the author of Utopia and that he was ultimately executed for his beliefs.
St. Thomas More lived an incredible life—one filled with many material blessings and moral achievements, as well as major setbacks and spiritual challenges. It’s hard to imagine how anyone but a saint could have handled these with such grace. What can we learn from More? What questions does his life and work pose for us? Below are five questions based on his bio (available here on EWTN) to ask yourself.
(A disclaimer: I have adapted and revised these questions from one of the discussion coordinators at a local young adult I attend. So credit goes to her for coming up with these stimulating questions!)
1. Spiritual self-awareness: St. Thomas More reportedly thought long and hard about entering the priesthood, with vigils, fasts, prayers, and similar austerities, according to his friend Erasmus. But he “proved himself far more prudent than most candidates who thrust themselves rashly into that arduous profession without any previous trial of their powers”—ultimately deciding to be a “chaste husband rather than an impure priest.” Do we seek the same self-awareness and honesty about our lives, our gifts, our strengths, and our weaknesses?…
Readers earlier this week were introduced to an online treasure of truly unique poems on the saints that spanned a one-year period, from late 2009, through 2010. I reached out to the author, Jamie Agnello, and here is what she told me about why she did the project and what inspired her:
While I was studying in the MFA in poetry program at Sarah Lawrence College, I was inspired to tackle a poem-a-day project. After thinking long and hard about what subject to delve into, I looked at my poems that I had been writing of recent and noticed that the saints kept popping up…so why not dedicate a project to them?
As a child in Catholic school, I loved the saints and found myself endlessly fascinated with them. My mother is also very interested in them as well and my childhood home is full of paintings and figurines of the saints that we’ve inherited and/or rescued from thrift stores over the years.
The saints have always played a central role in my ideas of storytelling and I’m very happy to share my interpretations of their histories through my poetry. When sharing these poems with others in workshops at Sarah Lawrence, the majority of my audience was not familiar with the saints, so it became a process of sharing a tradition with others, or an opening up of my own history. I had kept my favorite stories of the saints in my memory for years, and it was a labor of love to share part of myself with others.…